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In History: Utah reservists save water, wildlife across West

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  • 419th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – Throughout the wing’s 65-year history, Air Force reservists here have been tasked with accomplishing a variety of missions, not just combat operations. As previously noted, the wing has contributed to a number of humanitarian efforts throughout the years.  

One such “mercy mission” was performed in 1964 when the unit, then known as the 945th Troop Carrier Squadron, sent Reserve Airmen to Montana, where many cattle were starving due to severe storms and cold weather.

Hill’s Reserve unit dispatched a seven-man crew and one C-119 aircraft to Malmstrom AFB, Montana, for three days of hay dropping to save the livestock. The aircraft flew at an altitude of only 50 feet while crewmen, secured inside by a long rope, shoved bales through the plane’s open rear doors. In all, 18 tons passed through the doors to the cattle below.

This wasn’t the last time the unit was tasked to drop hay.

The unit launched “Operation Sop-Up” in 1965 when a break in an oil line resulted in nearly 5,000 barrels of oil pouring into the San Juan River about 100 miles above Lake Powell. National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation crews constructed a log barrier across the river, which temporarily kept oil out of the nearby reservoir. But halting the flow of the oil was not enough.

Utah reservists were called upon to deliver 8,000 pounds of baled hay aboard a C-119 to “sop up” the oil. The target was a section of the river just above the log barrier – an exceptionally difficult area to access by plane, since it was at the bottom of a deep chasm with sharp peaks rising on each side.

But expert pilots, along with veteran loadmasters, came through. Airmen shoved 86 bales overboard, where the hay spread out on the water and soaked up the oil. All but two hit the target zone – a near perfect “bombardment.”

"Operation Sop-Up” was credited with saving wildlife and preserving safe drinking water for residents as far away as Los Angeles.